Heart Rate Training
A nuts and bolts approach for runners

by Thomas Kulhawik P.F.S.

Consult with your doctor
before performing these or any strenuous tests or other physical activity.

Over the past several years, many changes have been made regarding training methods prescribed for both elite and everyday runners. The primary change has been a trend toward a hard/easy approach to training. It is now commonly accepted that training hard each day often leads to injury, while training easy all the time severely limits improvement. Therefore, the hard/easy approach to training has been determined to be the prescription for quickest improvement, with limited exposure to injury.

Exactly what constitutes hard and what constitutes easy? Many feel that hard training is simply fast paced running, while easy is slow paced. For the average runner, one could assume that the hard days are run at or near race pace, while easy days are run the proverbial 1 1/2 - 2 minutes slower than race pace. Sounds simple, right? Wrong! This simplistic approach can and often will lead to disaster. To adequately determine our training level, we must find a way to accurately measure the physiological response to our training, relative to the course, weather conditions, and physical and emotional factors, etc... The heart rate monitor accomplishes this. The monitor removes the guess work and gives us accurate and constant feedback.

Heart rate training allows us to train at the specific level our training prescription calls for. Your life stresses, weather conditions, physical condition, emotional state, etc.. all affect how our bodies respond to the training we are conducting. The heart rate monitor allows us to gauge our pace and effort based upon these external and internal forces. A prime example would be the runner who trains "easy" at 8 minutes per mile. This pace may truly be "easy" on one day, where the temperature is 55 degrees with low humidity on a flat course with adequate rest. This same 8 minutes per mile may constitute a "hard" training day if on another day, that same runner trains on a hilly course, in very humid conditions, on a warm day, without adequate hydration and rest and while undergoing emotional stresses from work or family commitments. Although the pace is the same on both days, the effort required is significantly different. Properly following target heart rate training would allow us to factor in all these forces and conduct the proper paced training. In the case of the humid, warm day on a hilly course, the monitor would provide the feedback to alert us to slow our pace, thereby keeping our effort in a range that would actually be "easy". If the roles were reversed, the heart rate monitor would signal us to increase or effort and pace to bring our training up to the "hard" range if our schedule called for that type of workout.

How the monitor works

The heart rate monitor consists of two pieces. A wireless receiver worn on the wrist and a wireless transmitter worn comfortably around the chest. The unit transmits the electrical impulses produced by the contraction of the heart to the receiver worn on the wrist. The receiver samples your hear rate and extrapolates the rate to display your rate per minute. The units are so sensitive as to continuously sample and adjust the rate on an ongoing basis, using technology that is reported to rival EKG readings. The sophistication of the units range from inexpensive models (under $100) which simply display your heart rate, to very sophisticated units (Over $200) which can be programmed to make various calculations and recordings and also function as full featured runners watches. These high end units eliminate the need to wear a watch while training or racing and allow for more sophisticated tracking and recording of heart rate information.

By using the heart monitor while training or racing, your heart rate is just that, monitored as you conduct your workout, and hard/easy training is easily accomplished.

Training with the heart rate monitor

Simply stated, "easy" days are run at or below 70% of your maximum heart rate. Regardless of the course or conditions, your pace and effort is adjusted to keep your heart rate below this 70% aerobic ceiling. "Hard" days are run at or above 85% of your maximum heart rate. Conversely, pace and effort are adjusted to keep your heart rate above this anaerobic threshold. Therefore, the proper strategy would be to alternate "easy" or aerobic runs (70% or less of max heart rate) and "hard" or anaerobic runs (85% or more of max heart rate).

Determining Max Heart Rate and Training Zones


The best and most accurate way to determine Max Heart Rate is through a treadmill stress test conducted in a laboratory setting. While this test is the most accurate, and the recommended method of determining ones maximum heart rate, it is not easily or inexpensively accomplished. Because of these obvious drawbacks, the average runner must use other tests or formulas to approximate maximum heart rate.


Track Test

Max heart rate can be estimated by wearing your monitor and conducting a thorough warm up. When ready the participant should run 800 meters on the track at a hard or race pace, followed by 1 minute of rest. This is then followed by another 800 meter sprint run all out. The highest heart rate registered at end of last 800 would approximate maximum heart rate. The participant should properly cool down after the testing is completed.

Race Test

Another method to estimate maximum heart rate is to note the max heart rate obtained during the final hard sprint to the finish line at the end of a 5K race.

Estimation by formula

Several formulas have been developed and modified to determine max heart rate. The original, and standard formula of 220 - AGE = MAX HR has been changed and adapted into what has been called the Karvonean Formula and the Cooper Adaptation to the formula, among others. Generally the revised formula determines the max heart rate by taking 205 minus 1/2 AGE adding 5 to 10 beats if elite or accomplished runner and adding 5 beats if female = Max Heart Rate. When using a formula to estimate max heart rate, this adapted formula is recommended.


EX: 32 year old experienced male marathoner

FORMULA 205 - 1/2 AGE + 5 to 10 beats if elite of accomplished runner + 5 beats if female = MAX HR
205 - 16 + 5= 194 MAX HR=194
Maximum estimated heart rate is 194 for this individual


The aerobic ceiling noted earlier is generally believed to be 70% of max heart rate. The formula to determine the aerobic ceiling (70% max) should also utilize the adaptation to the simple 70% calculation, by adjusting the figure to account for resting heart rate. Resting rate is a good gauge of aerobic fitness, and therefore adjusts the formula to account for the athletes conditioning level. Aerobic Ceiling factoring in resting heart rate (adaptation to formula) is determined by the following formula: [(MAX HR - Resting Heart Rate) x 70%] + Resting Heart Rate = Aerobic Ceiling. The aerobic ceiling for easy or recovery runs is necessary to build mileage while limiting exposure to injury.


EX: MAX HR = 194 Resting HR = 45


[(MAX HR - Resting HR) X 70%] + Resting HR = Aerobic Ceiling
[(194 - 45) X 70%] + 45 = 149
A heart rate of 149 is the 70% aerobic ceiling for this athlete.


The anaerobic ceiling noted earlier is generally believed to be 85% of max heart rate. The formula to determine the anaerobic ceiling (85% max) should also be adjusted to account for resting heart rate. Anaerobic Threshold factoring in resting heart rate (adaptation to formula) is determined by the following formula: [(MAX HR - Resting Heart Rate) x 85%] + Resting Heart Rate = Anaerobic Threshold. The anaerobic threshold used for hard training runs is necessary to raise lactate threshold and improve speed.


EX: MAX HR = 194 Resting HR = 45


[(MAX HR - Resting HR) X 85%] + Resting HR = Aerobic Ceiling
[(194 - 45) X 85%] + 45 = 172
A heart rate of 172 is the (85%) anaerobic threshold for this athlete.


The preceding is a basic nuts and bolts approach to heart rate training for runners. This simple hard/easy two zone program can be broken down even further, dependent upon the athletes needs and the trainer's/coach's expertise. Exercise physiologists have identified as many as five zones, ranging from 50% - 100% of maximum heart rate. These zones take into account numerous factors including: energy pathways utilized, the speed/pace of the run, effort, duration, recovery, and muscle fibers utilized. Training programs specifying mileage in target heart zones can be devised to specifically train an individuals system to respond dependent upon the key race distance being trained for; condition of athlete, and the goals of individual.

While heart rate monitors have been around for some time, the technology and research has exploded in recent years. The field of knowledge is constantly changing and improving as more and more people begin training and racing with heart rate monitors. What was once a training tool reserved for the elite triathlete or marathoner, is now a vital piece of equipment used by athletes of all levels, whose goals range from something a simple as weight loss, to the individual who is training to win the Boston Marathon or Ironman Triathlon.

Consult with your doctor
before performing these or any strenuous tests or other physical activity.

The author is an experienced runner and marathoner. He is the owner of HI-TEK Racing, retailing state of the art running and fitness equipment, including POLAR Heart Monitors. He is certified as a Physical Fitness Specialist by the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research, Dallas, Texas. He is actively involved in the direction of many local running events in Fairfield County, Connecticut. In addition, he is a lecturer and instructor in fitness and wellness and also conducts personal counseling for runners and fitness enthusiasts of all levels and abilities. He is available for questions or for private assessments and/or counseling. He can be reached at: HI-TEK Racing (203) 378-5210. Comments or questions can also be addressed to HI-TEK Racing 7365 Main Street, Suite 183, Stratford, CT 06497. EMAIL to HITEKRACE@aol.com

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